How much anxiety is normal?

Everyone feels anxious sometimes. But too much worry can disrupt your life and even make you sick. Learn the red flags of anxiety — and proven ways to get it under control.

Life is full of stressors. We all have times when we feel on edge about what’s heading our way. While anxiety doesn’t feel good, it isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s a natural response to real threats that helped our ancestors get away from dangerous predators.

But for many people, anxiety can get out of hand. Nearly one third of American adults and adolescents develop an anxiety disorder at some point in their lives. And experts have seen even more anxiety than usual in the past 2 years. One global study estimates that levels have risen more than 25% since before the COVID-19 pandemic.

It makes sense. The pandemic has threatened our physical, emotional, and financial well-being. And it’s kept us from the friends and family who usually offer support and help us cope with stress.

If you’re feeling anxious often or deeply enough that it’s getting in the way of living your life, it might be time to take action. Here are some common signs that anxiety has reached unhealthy levels and what you can do if you’re feeling overwhelmed.

How to Tell When You Have Too Much Anxiety

Remember, some amount of anxiety is normal. The nerves you feel before a first date or giving a speech? The stress of being stuck in traffic when you’re late for a meeting? Those feelings are to be expected. “Being worried does not mean you have an anxiety disorder,” says psychotherapist and anxiety expert Haley Neidich, L.C.S.W. “It can often be associated with stressors that warrant concern.”

An anxiety disorder, on the other hand, is marked by an excessive or irrational level of worry or fear that can hurt your ability to get through your day. “Anxiety disorders are when our anxiety gets out of control, or fear and anxiety is out of proportion to the situation,” says Aaron Telnes, M.C. Telnes is a registered psychologist at Synthesis Psychology in Calgary.

Of course, when you’re anxious, it can be hard to judge your feelings with a clear head. Here are some signs that the anxiety you’re feeling is clinical (and you may want to seek help from a mental health professional):

  • Worry is interfering with your daily life. It’s hurting your ability to function at work, school, socially, or at home. It can make it hard to do the things you used to want to do, such as seeing friends or joining in your favorite activities.
  • You’re having physical symptoms of anxiety. That might include shaking, heart palpitations, sweating, lightheadedness, upset stomach, nausea, sleep difficulties, or restlessness.
  • The physical and emotional effects of your anxiety last 6 months or more.

This checklist can be helpful in assessing your anxiety levels. But you might also get a good sense just by checking in with your gut.

“If you think you have anxiety, you may be right,” says Karen Surowiec, Psy.D. Surowiec is a psychologist based in New York City. “Most people can detect that they are anxious. However, understanding the severity and how the body reacts to it is another lesson. This lesson is best learned through a professional who is trained to treat anxiety. They can assess your anxiety and provide a treatment plan.”

5 Ways to Help Ease Anxiety

If you feel it’s time to get your anxiety in check, here are some strategies you can use both on your own and with the help of a mental health expert.

1. Acknowledge your anxiety.

When you’re feeling anxious, you might be super focused on the thing that’s stressing you out. That makes it tough to realize that your feelings are bigger than they need to be. Try to take a step back, look at the situation with fresh eyes, and ask yourself: Is this really as bad as it’s making me feel? Often, it’s not. And just seeing that your anxiety is a problem is an important first step for learning ways to deal with it, Neidich says.

2. Face your anxiety head-on.

“The more we avoid the things that make us anxious, the more anxious we become,” Neidich says. Why is that?

Let’s say meeting new people makes you anxious. So you don’t go to a party because you know there will be new faces there. Sure, skipping the party will give you a sense of relief in the moment. But that relief only confirms for your brain that parties are bad or scary. And that will make you feel more anxious the next time you get a party invitation. For that reason, says Telnes, “approach anxiety-provoking situations whenever possible, however initially uncomfortable it might be.”

3. Practice deep breathing.

Taking slow, deep breaths is one of the simplest and most effective ways to rein in anxious feelings. It’s how we breathe when we’re feeling calm and relaxed. By comparison, we take quick, shallow breaths when we’re on edge. So switching to deep breathing sends a signal to your brain that you’re feeling calm. And then your brain tells the rest of your body that it’s time to chill out.

Best of all, you can practice deep breathing anywhere, and it’s totally free. If you’ve never done it before, belly breathing is an easy place to start. Here’s how to do it:

  • Sit in a comfortable position. Put 1 hand on your belly.
  • Breathe in deeply through your nose. As you do, feel your belly rise under your hand.
  • Breathe out through your mouth. Feel your belly go in and the hand on your belly drop.
  • Repeat this slowly, 3 to 10 times.

4. Schedule your worry.

Some therapists suggest choosing a time of day to focus on your anxiety. Make it official: Schedule it into your day by blocking out 30 minutes on your calendar to worry. During that time, write down what is making you feel anxious. And try to create a plan for the next day that addresses the problem.

So how does worrying on purpose help you worry less? For starters, it helps you begin to contain your anxiety to that half hour instead of letting it pop up throughout the day. It also gives you space to start to problem-solve. And if you’re coming up with solutions for what causes your anxiety, there’s less to feel anxious about.

“Scheduled worry can be a very useful strategy to manage anxiety,” Telnes says. Telnes often suggests it for patients who have racing thoughts that keep them up at night. It’s best done at the end of the day, but not too close to bedtime.

5. Talk to a pro.

In good news, many health plans offer mental health coverage and programs for their members. If you’re not sure about your coverage, call your plan. Or if your plan offers the Wellframe digital health management app, log in. It can connect you with your care advocate, who can help you find a therapist in your network and set up an appointment. They can also help connect you with local support groups and resources.

The important thing to remember is that you don’t have to figure out how to ease your anxiety all on your own. A mental health expert can help you find solutions known to be effective. And just knowing that you have that support can take some of the weight of anxiety off your shoulders.

Many health plans offer mental health programs for their members at no extra cost. Ask your health plan if you’re eligible for the Wellframe app.

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